Is the car the next smartphone?

The automobile is often cited as the next big mobile device. Find out more about connected cars and how they might impact your business.

Despite arriving on the scene relatively recently, smartphones and tablets are now part of the everyday computing experience in homes and businesses around the world. An iPad in an executive meeting was a novelty 18 months ago, but is now fairly common. Those wondering where the next big mobile device revolution might occur have often cited the lowly automobile as the next big mobile device. Here’s what you need to know about connected cars and how they might impact your business.

Sensors on wheels

Most modern vehicles are loaded with sensors that communicate over what is conceptually analogous to a LAN in the vehicle called the CAN bus. Push the gas in most modern vehicles, and rather than a cable opening a throttle, a digital message goes out over the CAN bus and an engine controller increases the throttle. Similarly, various components of the car are also reporting their status. In addition to complex engine sensors, turning on the wipers or headlights sends a message across the bus. Throw GPS capabilities into the mix, and you have a highly instrumented, location-aware platform that puts smartphones to shame.

It’s no secret that modern cars are loaded with specialized embedded computers; however, more recently cars have gained more functional and interactive interfaces in the form of modern “infotainment” units.

The missing link

Missing from this picture has been high-speed connectivity; however, that is rapidly changing. Several automakers have announced embedded high-speed wireless connectivity, with embedded 4G radios providing access to speedy networks, allowing cars to share the reams of data they’re collecting and interact with applications and services.

Apps in the cloud

Like most modern mobile applications that use a smartphone or tablet as a presentation layer, and provide applications and computing horsepower in a cloud-style environment, connected vehicles are the same. What’s fundamentally interesting about a connected car is that it provides far more intelligence about what its user, the driver, is doing. If my low fuel light comes on, the vehicle could intelligently gather a list of local gas stations. Take this to its next logical level, and a particular gasoline retailer could offer a fuel discount to encourage the driver to pull her thirsty vehicle into his service station. Based on our location and even queries to the navigation system, our cars know everything from when we’re hungry and what kind of restaurants we usually prefer, to when and where we’re speeding, or even when an emergency has occurred.

Autonomous cars, still several years away, might even use their sensor data to form ad-hoc networks that communicate with nearby cars and communicate road conditions, speed information, or even hazards that have been detected.

Cars and the enterprise

The benefits and applications enabled by these technologies are relatively obvious from a consumer perspective, but you might be wondering how they’ll impact the enterprise. The most notable change is that the car now becomes a highly targeted channel for marketers. Just as you can email an offer to someone in a particular demographic who has searched for certain keywords in the last seven days, you can now push an offer to drivers who have a certain fuel level, are in a certain area, and tend to prefer cheeseburgers over salads.

An increasingly computerized and connected car also faces many of the same challenges as smartphones and tablets. There are literally life and death risks to securing access to certain vehicle subsystems, challenges to updating software on a massive fleet of geographically dispersed devices, and concerns about end user privacy. If your company markets to consumers or helps solve the challenges around managing mobile devices, you should be paying attention to the connected car. If you offer content or services that might be relevant to drivers, the connected car gives you a quick and easy way to reach those consumers.

Connected car challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing connected vehicles is the threat from smartphones and tablets. Some companies and consumers have suggested simply integrating existing tablets into the automobile, providing a docking station and interface to the CAN bus. This allows the driver to upgrade the user interface and connectivity of the car by replacing a tablet, rather than upgrading to a new vehicle. This becomes especially compelling when you consider that a five year old smartphone might be “ancient” by technology standards, but is still quite modern by automotive standards.

Privacy and infrastructure concerns also abound. Will consumers embrace a car that gently reminds them they need an oil change and suggests a service station near their favorite bar, since it knows the driver usually stops by for a drink on Tuesday night? Will rapidly built, cloud-based infrastructures provide a smartphone-like experience when millions of cars are sending frequent position and data updates? Despite the challenges, the lowly automobile may well be the next major mobile platform and an interesting market for your products or services.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...


In spite of the need for the average user to stay connected and use apps, I think that most drivers should keep their eyes and attention on the road. I survived a head on collision with an idiot that was paying more attention to her Iphone apps than oncoming traffic.



"Will consumers embrace a car that gently reminds them they need an oil change and suggests a service station near their favorite bar, since it knows the driver usually stops by for a drink on Tuesday night?"

Really? Get tanked while you are having your car serviced and then drive home? Or let the car drive home because it has better judgment? Proof- read- please.

NickNielsen moderator

Until Americans in particular come to understand that the driver's seat is not their living room recliner, anything that adds distractions for the driver is a lousy idea.  There's nothing more disconcerting than realizing that the reason the car passing you on the interstate is all over its lane is because the driver is buried in the phone at 80 mph.


There's been lots of talk about this, and it's compelling in new ways. But "car as the next smartphone" ... no, that's the wrong model. 

Car to car communications will be the next big evolution of collision avoidance. Already, cars are adjusting their trajectory by-wire, with active cruise control, automatic braking, and lane maintenance functions. The next step is each car sharing information with the next, to better deal with what the other guys are about to do. And this is going to continue into the self-driving car era. 

But for smartphones-type things, not really. Sure, they're going to try, but it's a flawed model. For one, there are more smartphones sold in a good month than a year's worth of cars, worldwide. So that's a pretty small market for any company used to smartphone volumes, and that's assuming most cars go "smart"... a bad assumption, at least for now. 

Secondly... smartphones get replaced every year or two. Cars can last over ten years. Locking them down to a smartphone-style software model poses a real problem... the predominant smartphone OSs today aren't even ten years old yet. Imagine how useful your car would be today with iOS 1.0 or Android 1.5 in it... and pretty much stuck there until you sell the car. 

Naturally, this one smartphone model it would follow: whatever the software model, there's a separate application processor for apps and entertainment. You might have some car telemetry made available to apps, but there's no way that's anything but read-only. The automakers have enough trouble with software stability, they don't need random apps messing in the internals. 


You're missing the other side of this coin which is security.  It's already been shown that you can hack into the systems of these cars, now connecting them to the Internet would allow some across the globe access.  Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. 

I do agree that, as far as entertainment value goes, a standard connector to use a smartphone or tablet in vehicles would be nice.  Just not connected to CAN-bus.


Sounds nice and all, but, have any of these bloggers who are so in love with the latest tech and the "always connected" mode of life, ever thought beyond the "it would be so great and cool" factors?

People have forever rejected the telemarketers calls, which were very invasive and could happen at all times of the day.  People wanted and got the "Do Not Call" list created, to try to deal with the problem.  Now, people are having to deal with spam in their e-mail boxes, and the junk mail box was created.  Next, they'll be dealing with the invasive "I know where you are, and I know what you're doing, and I know what you need, and 'have I got a deal for you'" type of invasion into our lives.

People are going to want the creation of the "Don't effing annoy me!", or "Get the hell out of my life!", or the "Leave me the hell alone!" service.  In fact, that service has been needed for a very long time, and ever since the internet was created.  

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